Of all the decision-making processes, Anarchists generally recognize two kinds: direct democracy and consensus. There are plenty of adherents on both sides, although activists tend to prefer the latter. Given large enough groups, both can break down. However, the issue is whether one is preferable to the other.
The main argument against consensus is that it is vulnerable to bullies who use their influence or power to get others to agree with them. And we do have plenty of experience with that in authoritarian forms of consensus, such as juries, which are notoriously rife with intimidation and power plays from judges and jurors alike. However, it is unclear how direct democracy is somehow immune from this, especially since votes in such systems tend to be open ballots.
If we make a comparison of both systems when they break down, we find that consensus at its worst is as good as democracy at its best. After all, at its best, the results of any form of democracy is determined by two forces: the moneyed minority which has the power of capital behind it, and the majority opinion which has the power of groupthink and intimidation behind it. Opponents of consensus say that people who disagree with the majority opinion can get browbeaten into submission. But this is the result of democracy in all cases! The system is set up so the majority always “wins.”
So this is another one of those cases of an argument which can be applied to the arguer’s position just as well. In fact, it is only when a consensus system completely breaks down that it becomes equivalent to a majority-takes-all system. Otherwise, it is always superior to democracy insofar as putting minority opinions on an equal level.
The problem with people criticizing consensus systems is that they want to have their cake and eat it too, that is to say, they want a system that respects minorities (in theory) and then bulldozes them when it’s time to take any actual decision. Because someone has to win when it’s time to take a decision, they reason, they can only do so by bullying the people who disagree with them. Therefore, consensus can only work by bullying. Democracy, on the other hand, “works” whether everyone agrees with each other or not, by simply counting and then ignoring any ideological minorities that may be present. It is the “pragmatic,” “realistic” answer.
I think the underlying problem is a belief that decision-making systems must necessarily force resolution, even where there is a profound disagreement between people. But this is exactly what we, as Anarchists, do not want. Many people confuse this with anomie, but rejecting rules that are not agreed upon is not the same as rejecting all rules. Within the perspective of innate morality, only ethical rules which are agreed upon by everyone (or a large enough sample thereof) are worthy of being enacted in the first place.
So how do we solve problems within large groups of people? What if no one agrees on a rule? What if some people are “hold-outs” (a derogatory term for a minority that dares to stick to its position)? Then either the rule is not worthy of being drafted, or your group is too big. The very reason why Anarchist groups adopt consensus in the first place is to ensure that minorities get to use their right to veto rules they refuse to follow, which is a fundamental organizational and political right. We cannot then turn around and blame consensus for doing exactly what we use it for.
So there is definitely a fear of division and a fear of ongoing disagreement, a fear of veto, a fear of the inability to force resolution on people. These fears are very much authoritarian fears, even if they are held by Anarchists. On the other hand, there is also the fear that some people in a position of authority can force resolution on people, that division can be browbeaten out of a group. These are very worthwhile fears to have, and these fears must always be sustained.
In that regard, it’s important to remember that “consensus” does not mean “structureless.” It also does not mean “adopting the same structure than you do informally.” It is crucially important, in a consensus system, that everyone is encouraged to speak and that any form of intimidation (whether through informal power or coercion) is highly guarded against. It’s also crucially important to ensure that the important roles in a decision-making system remain temporary, and are passed along from person to person, not kept to a special class of participants who start to acquire class interests which diverge from those of everyone else (as any managerial class acquires).
Equality cannot be achieved through structures which are not explicitly egalitarian. The means always beget the ends. A free, egalitarian society where all values are respected can only be achieved by free, egalitarian systems where all values are respected. And in that way, we can achieve as close to unity as can really be achieved on this planet.
But the simple fact of the matter is that it’s just not desirable to set up rules for every aspect of the lives of millions, or even thousands, of people. That’s a centuries-old ideal that we really need to just let go.